Political capital and prime ministerial legacy


Friday, December 14, 2012

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One of the things that we do very well in Jamaica is to celebrate political populism over the reality of pragmatic, substantive leadership. There seems to be the belief that once people gain political office they have a reservoir of skill and knowledge that will lead to the transformation of whatever portfolio they are given. Never mind that they have been at the wicket before and might have scored very few runs. Never mind also that they have been shifted from one portfolio to the next without any discernible achievement to boast about. This populism might have had its genesis in the 1970s with the ascendancy of Michael "Joshua" Manley to power. He was seen as the consummate charismatic leader, the expected Messiah who would lead the country into the Promised Land. His brand of politics resonated with the masses as the promised power was now in the hands of the people.

Well, we have seen the ruinous results of this populist brand of politics. By the time of Manley's re-election in 1976, democratic socialist experimentation had lent legitimacy to the power of the state in the organisation of the economy. Capitalist models of economic organisation were derided and denigrated. The commanding heights of the economy were concentrated in the arms of the state. Pioneering families that had been instrumental in the spectacular growth of the economy up to 1972 were seen as blood-sucking capitalists who had to be reined in. Poisonous socialist rhetoric, especially the infamous five flights a day to Miami, and the government's flirtation with Castro caused harmful capital flight from the country to occur along with a brain drain from which the country is still suffering.

Today the same populist political leadership persists. There is much talk in some quarters that the prime minister must use the political capital she has as a popular politician to address many of the problems the country faces. But what political capital does she really have, and if she does have a good amount of it, does she have what it takes to deploy this capital for the benefit of Jamaica? If she is wedded to the politics of the past, and recent issues of governance would suggest that she clearly is, do not expect any paradigm shift in her thinking anytime soon. It is one thing to speak of possessing political capital, but it is quite another to summon the courage to deploy that capital in the interest of the country. This demands bold leadership and the requisite political will. Political will of itself is not sufficient to get the job done. Political will has to be backed with the ability to do what needs to be done. A person may have the will to do something, but does he have the ability or feel himself suited or qualified to perform the task at the level required? I am not for one moment suggesting that the prime minister does not have the political will and the ability to do her job well. But I believe it is a relevant question to ask when we speak of political will - whether it is just the politicians' lack of political will or it is simply a matter that they do not know what to do when particular tasks confront them.

Over the years we have laboured under the illusion that you can place somebody in a ministerial portfolio and once there he or she will perform excellently. Not much thought seems to be given to the person's capacity to do the job. Yes, he may have good technical expertise in the ministry to which he is assigned, but the gravity of decision-making is in his hands. In any event ministers do not always listen to sage advice given by their experts. Neither is it in the DNA of politicians to admit that they cannot perform a task. To do so is political suicide. They will muddle their way through until they come to a cul-de-sac often when it is too late.

The prime minister is being asked by members of the public to take a second look at her unwieldy and expensive Cabinet. If she can appreciate the sagacity of this request, part of her review must encompass whether she has the right people with the necessary expertise or know-how in particular ministries. She may also take a look at the wider society and see if fresh blood and talent can be had from that source. She does not have to create new ministerial portfolios. In fact, the country would be better served by collapsing ministries into departments and sourcing relevant talent from the wider society to run these departments. The result would be fewer ministries, less burden on the public purse, and the recruitment of good talent and expertise from the wider society.

But all of this requires bold leadership which has to come from the top. At one point I was prepared to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt that this time around, recognising that she is on a legacy tour, she may deploy whatever political capital she has to lead the country in a more promising direction. As a sucker for hard "licks", perhaps I still am. My brain is telling me that she can. My gut is growling: "Faget it."





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